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Expectations for Cancun are undoubtedly much lower than they were for Copenhagen. Though the numbers are not yet final, it seems clear that there are fewer civil society observers present here than there were last year.  

Jennifer Hadden: Civil Society Participation in COP 16 – Logistics Matter

December 4, 2010

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Expectations for Cancun are undoubtedly much lower than they were for Copenhagen. Though the numbers are not yet final, it seems clear that there are fewer civil society observers present here than there were last year.

Jennifer HaddenJennifer Hadden (PhD Candidate, Government)

While Copenhagen was meant to produce a comprehensive new treaty, in Cancun observers hope that progress can be made in a number of key areas – finance, technology transfers, REDD+, adaptation and MRV/ICA – while recognizing that some of the big questions (e.g. mitigation and legal form) will probably need to be left for COP 17.

There have been a number of changes to the way that civil society organizations can participate in the negotiations in Cancun.  First, the Mexican hosts have split the venue into two separate locations: the main plenary buildings in the Moon Palace and the security screening facility/civil society venue in Cancun Messe (Cancun ‘Messy’ as it has come to be called).  The two locations are over 20 minutes apart by bus, and can be even further during the rush hour before the plenaries open (See Map below). All this commuting is leaving delegates and observers exhausted after what are already 14-16 hour days.

Map of CancunCommuter Map for COP 16 in Cancun

But the separation of venues is not only a hassle.  It also reinforces divisions between parties and observers in the political process.  Civil society organizations typically come to COPs to engage in a number of activities: monitoring and publicizing the progress in the negotiations, organizing side events to highlight their positions on key political issues, directly lobbying delegates, and staging public actions to draw attention to important developments.  When civil society groups are physically separated from delegates these activities are not impossible, but they are much more difficult (what delegate will skip her lunch to come to a civil society event when it requires a 40 minute bus ride?).

In addition to griping in the hallways about the venue, there is an ongoing discussion in the SBI about ‘enhancing the role of civil society observers.’  There have been a lot of proposals put forward on how to improve the process of civil society participation after the COP in Copenhagen.  While a number of parties (including the United States) have spoken out in favor of increased participation, there have also been a number of proposals that would reinforce the divisions between civil society and states.

For example, some suggestions for ‘enhancing participation’ have been to hold pre-COP NGO dialogues or have a few high level panels to distribute information to the COP, rather than having civil society groups participate more organically in the process.  Civil society groups have responded by calling for increased access to documents, meetings and interventions in the COP itself – not further segregation and tokenization of civil society.  Given that a number of civil society groups have been rejecting the UNFCCC process altogether and increasingly moving to ‘outside’ venues of participation, it seems like any further restrictions on participation run the risk of driving groups away from the UNFCCC process altogether.

Civil society groups are also defending their right to use public, non-violent actions to raise awareness of inadequacies and inequities in the negotiations.  While the Secretariat has been largely supportive of their right to engage in such actions (provided these action proposals are approved in advance) security personnel in Cancun have stated that they will require two days advance notice for such actions.  Civil society has objected that this ‘waiting period’ undermines their ability to react to the political process in a timely way and decreases likelihood that these events and issues will be picked up in the news media.

Everyone knows that no venue is perfect, and no political process is without its flaws.  Climate change has certainly become a more complex and contentious issue in the past few years.  And as civil society participation has expanded and diversified, integrating these actors in a meaningful way has also become more of a challenge.  While it is a tall order, participation of civil society is essential to the democratic legitimacy of the UNFCCC.  As a result, moves towards segregating and tokenizing civil society – logistically or procedurally – should be regarded with serious concern.

Jennifer Hadden is a member of Cornell’s delegation to COP 16